Moses' face shines with forgiveness when the Israelites expect punishment.
February 15, 2015
"It's Good to be Here"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Here we are… continuing on through the gospel of Mark. Which we’ll be hanging around in until Easter. The transfiguration story. Probably the strangest story in Mark’s gospel. We’ve seen plenty of strange things up to this point—the Spirit descending like a dove, miraculous healings, demons confronted and cast out. But here things are at their strangest. And maybe this is kind of the point. This isn’t something you see every day. There’s a lot happening in this story. It’s all very mysterious. Not even the most confident of scholars can exactly pin down what it means. But what’s most clear about this story is that this is a unique encounter with the divine. Jesus takes the disciples up a mountain—a place where heaven and earth are thought to intersect. He transforms from regular old Jesus in to shimmering whiter-than-bleach Jesus. Showing his divine identity and character. And then two long-gone figures from biblical history appear. Moses—who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. And Elijah. Both figures who are believed to have been taken directly to heaven following their deaths. And these two folks are just chatting with Jesus, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. And the sight of these strange things, it says, leaves the disciples “terrified.” Which is fair enough. Because this isn’t something you see every day. It’s what the Christian tradition has called a “theophany”—the appearance of God. Where God, usually hidden from our eyes, somehow shines through. This is as close to heaven as anyone can get in our world.
But the fascinating part here is how one of the disciples, Peter, reacts to this heavenly encounter. “Rabbi,” Peter says to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” A house for Elijah… a house for Moses… and then one for you, Jesus. He’s suggesting that they set up camp on the mountain. He’s suggesting they stay up there on the mountain. And who could blame him, really? Because just a chapter before Jesus is telling his disciples that he’s going to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And be crucified, and after three days rise again. And what’s even worse is that he says that his followers are supposed to deny themselves and take up their own crosses to follow him, and that those who lose their lives for his sake with save them. In the face of a future wrought with suffering. “It is good for us to be here.” It’s an oasis, a welcome escape from the troubles at hand. In the face of all the trials ahead, and all the suffering down on earth. Up on the mountain makes more sense. Heaven is the place to be. A welcome retreat from the cross. A welcome retreat from suffering.
When I was wrestling with this story this past week, I was reminded of an encounter I had about a year ago at the University of British Columbia. With a student who described himself as an atheist. Without actually saying it, his problem with Christianity, even religion in general—was Peter from this story! I was seated at a table with three university students at the University of British Columbia for orientation day. He was a younger guy, maybe at the end of his degree, and introduced himself. As I said, he described himself as an atheist. But not one of those atheists, he said. He told me that he’d met plenty of religious people who were some of the kindest, most generous, reasonable, and intelligent people he knew. He didn’t think religion was necessarily a bad thing. Like some atheists do. We talked a little bit more, and I asked him, if religion wasn’t such a bad thing, why atheism? He thought for a moment. “Atheism is just more realistic,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great comfort for people who are suffering in life. I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to ease their suffering with the thought of an afterlife. But we have so many problems in the world to deal with. Religion just seems like an escape from dealing with the world’s real problems.” His problem wasn’t the existence of God, the Bible, or the church. But that, like Peter, religious people seem to be so preoccupied with setting up camps in heaven that we end up avoiding the inevitable suffering on earth below. Faith is, to paraphrase Johnny Cash “so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good.” That, while providing necessary relief from the world’s suffering, it does nothing to actually face it.
I didn’t really have a good one-liner to send back his way that time. But I knew that wasn’t the end of the story. But maybe I should have told him the whole story of the transfiguration. Because, as much as Peter wants to stick around on the mountain, it’s Jesus that leads him back down to earth. Just as this scene is ending, a cloud overshadows them. And from the cloud a voice booms “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” And then all this stuff seems to disappear. The amazing encounter on the mountaintop is over. And they are left alone with plain old Jesus. And a divine order to listen to him—to follow him. To follow him back in to the suffering world down on earth.
But the most remarkable thing in my mind isn’t just that Jesus sends his disciples back in to the world of suffering. But that Jesus goes with them. Jesus goes with them in to the world of conflict. He heads down in to the world of suffering. He heads down in to the world ultimately rejects him. He heads down in to his life that ultimately ends with his own suffering, and his death. One that Jesus faces head on—is killed and is raised. This encounter on the mountain is not an escape, but a sneak preview of what is to come. And this is the message at the heart of the Christian story. At the heart of the gospel message is not us going up to the heavenly mountain to set up camp to leave the world’s troubles behind. It’s about God coming down, and bringing heaven to us. It’s about God coming down with us in to our world of suffering to make all things new. Our ordinary, everyday mundane lives. Our world filled with hurt and trouble. It seems to me that faith—or at least the Way of Jesus Christ—is not a retreat from the troubles of the world. But a divine summons to face them head on. With courage. With mercy. And with grace. Knowing that it is Christ who walks with us. And makes it possible. That’s the good news in a nutshell.
To end the sermon, we’re going to have a moment of silent prayer. During this time of prayer, I am going to ask you to stop and think of one person who you know who is struggling here on earth. It could be anything. And I want you to think about how you might be able to minister to them. How you might be able to bring heaven to them--Christ’s peace to them—and share their load. And think about what you need from God to make it possible. Let us pray.
The Christian seasons have not been a huge part of the United Church of Canada's tradition up until recently. The calendar has been recovered in recent decades with the hope of closing the gaps and mending divisions between Christian churches in the world, especially between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Also, though, in our world of round-the-clock consumerism, and minimal public holidays, there's something about patterning your life after a different calendar that makes time, different, special, or holy. As part of a fundraiser for our Pastor's Benevolent Fund, we sold copies of the Christian Seasons Calendar to help us in the recovery of these ancient practices of living in a different sort of time. I've found this especially profound for my kids, who even look forward to Lent!
On that note, we're coming up to Transfiguration Sunday in the Christian calendar. The odd day celebrating the story where Jesus is transformed--he becomes radiant to his disciples on the top of the mountain. This year, we'll be reading the version from Mark 9:2-10. It's such a weird story. Weird, especially, because Jesus tells his disciples not to discuss anything they have seen until "after he had risen from the dead."
Perhaps they don't see clearly enough in the present to know what this experience means. There are many people who can spot the divine in the here and now and understand what it all means no problem. Speaking for myself, though, I've found that when I actually spot something it's usually in retrospect. It's after looking back on things and reflecting on the present moment where I can say "I think that was the Spirit at work." Sometimes it's like we don't have the full picture of things in the present, and can only understand things fully after they have happened. What's interesting with this passage is that it looks like Jesus is saying that the disciples can't really understand what is happening on the mountain top, or even his whole life and ministry, unless they understand it in the life of the resurrection. They didn't really know what Jesus was up to until then.
How about you? Have there been moments in your life that didn't seem important at the time, but in looking back you realized they were actually huge moments of transformation in your life? Or your family or your community? How were you changed by them?
Let's keep these questions in mind as we make our way to celebrate our past, present and future in the light of the Spirit together!